By Robin Ferruggia
Ferruggia: What is animal intelligence?
Bekoff: Animal intelligence is probably the same as human intelligence. We measure what we call “intelligence” by looking at adaptable responses, how flexible an animal is, how adaptive an animal is, meaning how an animal adapts to his or her environment, especially when social and other factors – for example, food resources, resting and refuge areas, change. We tend to think that “smart” animals adapt better than animals who aren’t as smart. But I’m very wary of cross-species comparisons. To say cats are smarter than dogs or dogs are smarter than cats because it doesn’t really tell me anything. Cats do what they need to do to be card-carrying cats and dogs do what they need to do to be card-carrying dogs. It differs from human intelligence only because we haven’t studied different intelligences in animals like Howard Gardner at Harvard University has done. Gardner identified eight different sorts of intelligences in humans, including interpersonal intelligence, naturalistic intelligence, musical intelligence, logic-mathematical intelligence, and spatial intelligence. But we haven’t really identified these intelligences in animals.
Ferruggia: Why is it that people look at animals sometimes and say, “That animal is stupid”?
Bekoff: People look at animals and say “that animal is stupid” because they’re often presenting a task an animal doesn’t need to do or doesn’t have the sensory capacities to process what is being presented. The individual hasn’t evolved to do a particular task.
Ferruggia: But a human being might have been selected to do that task.
Bekoff: We might have been, but there’s things I can’t do that a dog can do, like follow a scent trail like an ant, but nobody tells me that I’m not as smart as an ant. As biologists we look at species-specific behavior and try to understand what animals need in their world. If we asked a human being to find something using ultrasound we couldn’t do it but bats do it regularly. But we don’t say that bats are smarter than people.
Ferruggia: There was a horse that looked like he was able to count. But what I understand was the horse was really picking up subtle cues from his owner. How did the owner’s belief that this was intelligence interfere with our ability to know what animal intelligence really was?
Bekoff: The horse was named Clever Hans and he was responding to cues from humans when he was asked questions, such as how much is two plus two. He would go one, two, three while his owner was using subtle cues to tell him to do it one more time. So people got very tainted thinking about how animals were cued by humans and claimed that it happened all the time. However, we’ve learned since Clever Hans that birds can count. And other animals have a sense of numerosity. Researchers call it subitizing – an ability to estimate numbers. It turns out a lot of animals can do it. So Clever Hans might not have been able to do it, but that doesn’t mean no other animals could do it, and I imagine horses can be easily conditioned to count.
Ferruggia: Given the understanding animals do have intelligence even though that’s intelligence within their own species, how would that change how we treat them?
Bekoff: We tend to want to treat smart animals better than dumb animals. I don’t think intelligence has anything to do with how we should treat animals because there’s people who aren’t as intelligent as other people, or at least we don’t think they are, and we basically treat them equally so I think it’s important not to use intelligence as the criterion. I think it’s sentience and what animals feel, not what they know.
Ferruggia: How are animal emotions like our emotions?
Bekoff: Animal emotions are like our emotions in the sense that we label them similarly and we share a number of anatomical and physiological features. When dogs are playing they show joy. When people play we use the word joy to express what they’re feeling. The feelings in dogs and people are similar enough to use the same word. We share the same neural processes in the limbic system and use the same neurochemicals in processing emotions. How emotions differ among various species is an interesting question but I’m not sure I can answer that because the same emotion can differ among human beings and between cultures. I think the best way to look at animal emotions is as evolved adaptations to allow animals to deal with specific and changing situations, to behave flexibly, to emote, to move and do something, and to be able to process psychological phenomena and respond in an appropriate way depending on the emotion that’s being evoked. Emotions across species function like “social glue” in that they’re important in forming and maintaining social bonds among individuals.
Ferruggia: Why should it matter if animals have emotions or not?
Bekoff: I think it matters big time because if they have emotions and feelings and can also experience pain and suffering then that would be the reason why we should treat them with respect and dignity and not mistreat them. Jeremy Bentham, who’s a very famous philosopher, said the real question is not can they think or not can they speak, but can they suffer? Emotions are related to sentience and suffering. That’s why animal emotions matter.
Ferruggia: Please tell me about the research findings that indicate that mice are empathic.
Bekoff: This study was done at McGill University by some neurobiologists. What they basically did was injected acetic acid into the paws of mice, and that’s very painful. They sort of ignored that pain and focused on the fact that the mice who had acetic acid injected into their paws showed queasiness and upset stomachs. Mice who saw other mice in pain, and they had to be familiar mice, showed a lower threshold to pain, which is the criterion we use for empathy. It’s a very important finding. It was a hardcore scientific research project. It tells us that animals not only suffer their own pains, but can feel and suffer the pains of other individuals. So that’s why it was an interesting and significant study. Anybody who’s lived with mice has known this; anybody’s who done fieldwork on mice knows this. So, this study, while generating important results, wasn’t really needed to tell us that social rodents can be empathic beings.
Ferruggia: I remember when I had these two mice in the house and I caught them in one of those humane traps, and I took them out to a field. I let them out of the box and I stood up and the two of them grasped on to each other and looked up at me.
Bekoff: You see that in lots of animals. They feel one another’s pain and find relief in the close company of others. They’re also thankful for people who help them. Animals can show gratitude to humans and to other animals.
Ferruggia: You saw a mother raccoon trying to pull her baby, who had been road-killed, out of the road. Please tell me about the grief in animals for members of their own species.
Bekoff: I saw this once when I was driving, and there’s lots of information now about grief in different animals ranging from elephants to magpies including domestic dogs and cats. It’s known that elephants grieve the loss of friends and they hold funeral rituals for the loss of friends. I saw a magpie ritual once where a magpie had been hit by a car and there were four magpies surrounding the corpse. One magpie went in and pecked at the corpse. Another magpie went in and pecked at the corpse. One flew off and brought back grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four animals stood around in silence and then flew off. It was a very ritualized behavior. My friend who was with me asked me if I’d seen that before and I said “no.” And then I saw the same thing in foxes on my road. So it’s pretty widely believed now that many animals can sense the death in another animal, or sense that something serious has happened, and then will either try to pull the animal out of harm’s way, or perform some kind of funeral ritual, which is basically a good-bye ceremony.
Ferruggia: You said foxes do that too.
Bekoff: And wolves. And dogs. Lots of people have been reporting these sorts of phenomena. After I published the magpie story I got emails from all over the world telling me that people had seen the same in ravens and in crows, birds of prey, birds who we think are intelligent, social animals. So I think it’s pretty clear birds and mammals definitely show grief. We need to study grief in other animals to see how widespread it is among animals.
Ferruggia: You say people haven’t really noticed these funeral rituals in the past?
Bekoff: I think people noticed it but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s why I think it’s important to get the information out there, because then other people can share their experiences. You see, it’s not a new thing.
Ferruggia: Is it possible that they didn’t notice that because they were not aware that these animals had feelings?
Ferruggia: They just discount that information?
Bekoff: Yes. A lot of people would discount the information or they would think it was innate, hardwired. But it’s not. It’s a very elaborate ceremony that can vary. In elephants it varies from group to group, for example. There seems to be a cultural element to it and this also deserves further study. These rituals are an expression of loss and it’s a complicated phenomenon. But now people are more sensitive to animal emotions in general.
Ferruggia: What does this mean in terms of how we should treat animals?
Bekoff: It changes how we should treat animals because if they’re sentient and feeling beings we have to honor that they can feel pain and suffering as well as joy and pleasure and happiness. That’s the bottom line for me. I think animals should be respected because they simply exist. But if you’re looking for a hook to hang your coat on, it’s basically that they are feeling beings and we have to honor and respect their feelings.
Ferruggia: How would we do that?
Bekoff: By not torturing them in invasive research, not keeping them in zoos or rodeos or circuses or housing them in horrible conditions on factory farms, and not wearing them. It’s common sense many animals suffer when they’re treated in horrible and inhumane ways.
Ferruggia: It would be common sense, but it’s not happening. Why isn’t it happening?
Bekoff: It’s not happening because people are accustomed to doing certain things in certain ways. We need to change convenient habits and things are changing. In California Proposition 2 passed in November 2008, based on underground videos taken at a slaughterhouse that showed workers abusing animals. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a proponent of animal protection. In factory farms downer cows who can’t walk are usually left to die. Now they have to be at least given the proper funeral, if you will, and be treated in a dignified way and not just be allowed to suffer and then die on the roadside. Clothing designers have stopped making fur clothes. Things are changing, but we all have to get out of certain habits that we have. And getting the word out is helping animals immeasurably as is making animals part of the political agenda.
Ferruggia: What is Proposition 2?
Bekoff: Proposition 2 centers on increasing the humane standards of factory farms so that animals can stand and walk around, not be forced to lay on the ground or kept in horribly small and filthy cages. It’s a great beginning. It passed 63 to 37, so it was overwhelming. But it’s just a beginning and a lot more work has to be done.
Ferruggia: When you say it’s just the beginning, where do you hope to see this go?
Bekoff: It is already going into other slaughter houses and a turkey farm which was recently shut down, so I think where I want to see it go is to have better inspection of these facilities, the enforcement of a lot of laws that already exist, and ultimately closing down factory farms. A lot of the laws exist but they’re not enforced because people have gotten away with violating them for a long time.
Ferruggia: You talked about invasive research. How have your colleagues in the science world responded to your position on animals and emotions?
Bekoff: At first some responded with incredulity that somebody with scientific credentials would ever posit that animals have emotions. But it’s changed. It’s definitely changed quite a bit. Just today there was an editorial in Nature magazine saying we need more pain research on animals, not on animals to learn more about humans, but to learn about animal pain. A lot of scientists are questioning the utility of models in biomedical research. Over the last decade, and especially over the last five or so years things have radically changed, so there’s not as much skepticism. In fact, I don’t think there was really a lot of skepticism. I think the idea that animals felt emotions was threatening to some of my scientific colleagues because it threatened the way they conducted their research. By denying emotions they distanced themselves from the animals. The animals were looked at as objects not subjects. Big change, big paradigm shifts are happening.
Ferruggia: What do you think contributes the most to that paradigm shift?
Bekoff: I think the paradigm shift is because of a lot of good science and a lot more PR about getting information out there about animal emotions in a user friendly way, not an in-your-face way. Just letting the data speak for themselves, if you will, and not telling scientists what to do, but showing them. Many scientists are concerned now the data they collect on laboratory animals, for example, or animals in zoos, are really data from stressed animals. So they’re looking at the behavior of stressed chimpanzees or the behavior of stressed dogs or cats, not of normal captive animals. So even though the behavior of captive animals may differ from wild animals, or free-ranging animals, they are probably looking at animals who are highly stressed. So they’re concerned because scientists like to claim they’re seekers of the truth, and although it’s hard to find the absolute truth, you always want to collect the best data that you can.
Ferruggia: What happens when you are testing a drug on animals and the animals are highly stressed?
Bekoff: Stressed animals have a strong hormonal biochemical response to stress, so they’re going to process drugs differently. So if you’re testing drugs and doing what’s called the LD-50 test, Lethal Dose 50 test, on an animal where you give a certain amount of a drug and the “lethal dose” is the amount of drug that causes half the animals to die, if animals living in different conditions process the drug differently depending on whether they’re stressed or non-stressed, you better hope that you’re getting data that are reliable from unstressed animals. For example, you might be able to the say the LD-50 for a particular drug is ten units, but it could be five or it could be 20 depending on who the animals are and how they are housed. We need to pay attention to the responses of individual animals. Details count. That’s another reason why the people are much more sensitive to making sure the animals who they study are not stressed. There’s also a lot of rapidly accumulating information showing that a lot of drugs just don’t work. Almost 110,000 people die a year in hospitals from drugs that were previously tested on animals and a lot of drug companies are realizing now that the animal models for how drugs work just do not apply to humans. The drug industry is a huge moneymaker, so drug companies don’t like changing their ways. But they’re going to have to.
Ferruggia: How do you respond to the criticisms that you get from your colleagues?
Bekoff: I just respond by showing them the information we have. I don’t get angry, I don’t get insulting. You don’t get anywhere – in fact, you receive what you give, so if you give them anger, they get angry back. I just show them the data. I also ask them about their own dog, if they live with a dog. So they may treat a dog in a lab, or a cat in a certain way, or a chimpanzee, and I’ll say, “Would you do what you did to this individual in your lab to your dog?” And invariably they say “no.” And I’ll ask, “Well, why?” and then they’ll tell me why – they’re helping humans, they’re advancing scientific knowledge. And then I’ll say, “Well, what about the dog in the lab? Don’t you think that the dog in the lab has the same feelings as your companion dog at your house?” And sometimes I just let it go at that. Put the question out. You’re asking them to make radical changes, so you have to give them time to respond. Because if they change, and you hope they will, you want to make sure their changes are well motivated and long lasting.
Ferruggia: In our society, animals are legally considered property. Wild animals are considered the property of governments. Did this definition of animals evolve from our beliefs that animals are not intelligent, do not have emotions and are incapable of making moral judgments?
Bekoff: Yes. Across the world animals are looked at as property in different legal systems. The reason for this centers on the fact that many people don’t think animals are smart or emotional beings. They think of animals like they think of their chair or couch and thus they can do anything we want to them. Some of it of course comes from the misreading of the notion of dominion from the Bible, dominion being translated sort of as domination. That’s why a lot of the work being done on animal cognition or animal sentience is very important for informing decisions about whether animals should no longer be considered as objects or property. Another view is that animals are not rational, but we know that that’s not true. Very few people debate that today but there’s a long and strong historical momentum, and I think that what we really have to do is really try to change the track that people are going using this momentum. It’s just very easy to do the same thing over and over and over again. But with all the data coming out in the study of cognitive ethology and comparative psychology we’re learning about the phenomenal cognitive capacities and emotional capacities – and even moral lives – of animals. So there are moves now to take the property status away and grant either legal rights or treating them as equals in a sense of giving their interests equal consideration. Animals, like humans, have an interest in living a good life, a non-stressful life, a non-painful life. The notion of rights for animals is very complex. It scares people. It scares people because rights entail obligations, and if you say an animal has a right to life, then you are obligated to treat that animal in a way that doesn’t compromise his or her life. The whole notion of human rights is extremely complex. The legal process is also a very slow process, so I think it’s a ways off before animals are granted rights. But just the discussion is, in and of itself, moving the bar so that animals now are given better, more equal consideration of their interests. But let me emphasize there’s a long road ahead because legal abuse remains rampant.
Ferruggia: When you have animals being used to provide food and other things that people need, obviously they’re going to be killed in the process, so I think that would make a major change in society.
Bekoff: It will make a major change in society in a number of ways. It will make a major change because most people do not want to add cruelty to the world. If they realize animals have feelings and are emotional and there is a move to grant them legal rights, whether that ever happens, it’s going to force people come to terms with who animals really are. So if you present it that if they treat animals in certain ways they are being intentionally cruel, that may make them change their way in the sense that they want to be more compassionate. And I think part of it is that, once again, regardless of where these campaigns go, I think it’s really, really important that the issues be discussed openly, which they are in major media. The New York Times, every week, has an article on animal cognition, animal smarts or animal emotions. New Scientist magazine, Scientific American, Science magazine, you know, very popular magazines along with radio shows are always talking about animal sentience and animal cognition. The important thing is to get the information out and to have open discussion among people with different views. Preaching to the converted isn’t going to get us anywhere. We need to change heads and hearts. The animals are depending on us and our goodwill.
Ferruggia: You mentioned earlier the question of the issue of dominion, which is in the Bible, and it’s being interpreted as dominance. How do you think that should be interpreted?
Bekoff: Dominion usually means stewardship, caring for. So you can have dominion over an animal or stewardship, but it’s a caring ethic. It’s not domination. It’s taking into account what the animal wants and what the animal needs, and then giving them the opportunity to realize their desires and their needs or their wants, if you will. That’s what dominion means. We do have dominion. We can do things other animals can’t do. We can do anything we want. We can control them and we can kill them if we want to do so. I think the misreading of dominion as domination has really set the way for the mistreatment of animals.
Ferruggia: Do we need some changes in the churches?
Bekoff: I think we do need some basic changes in religious doctrine concerning animals but let me emphasize that this isn’t my field of experience. But you know, I get invited to work with religious leaders, religious scholars, theologians, so there are changes happening. Churches around Boulder, where I live, and other places, are having lectures on animal emotions and the treatment of animals. It’s slow in coming but it’s a really good way to increase what I call the compassion footprint, to get the information we have out there to people who might not have access to it. Religious leaders are extremely influential in their community. There are more and more invited essays and op-eds by religious leaders about the treatment of animals. I don’t know that religious doctrine in a formal way will change but we’re all people so it shouldn’t really matter which religion we ascribe to.
Ferruggia: When the rights of young children are at issue in a legal dispute, courts often appoint an attorney to act as a guardian-ad-litem for them. The guardian-ad-litem advocates for the small child who cannot speak for himself. Should we provide guardian-ad-litems for wildlife when their welfare is involved, such as if a species is denied protection under the Endangered Species Act?
Bekoff: That’s a good question. We do de facto provide guardian-ad-litems because there’s plenty of lawyers working on behalf of the animals to make sure the Endangered Species Act is honored, to make sure laboratory regulations are followed, and the slaughterhouse regulations – humane standards are followed. The answer is yes, we must protect animals, because animals, like young children and senile adults, non-consenting beings. They’re not moral agents in the sense we don’t hold them responsible for their actions.
Ferruggia: Please tell me how are animal intelligence, animal emotions and animal morality connected?
Bekoff: It’s not a neat linear relationship, but it’s somewhat of a hierarchy where we go from intelligence – animals are smart, adaptable, to animals who are emotional and feeling beings, to questions whether animals have a moral intelligence, a moral sensibility, asking if they know right from wrong. It’s not really a hierarchy but some sort of progression. Regardless, they’re all related. In order to reciprocate a kind act or be nice or play fairly or share resources equitably, you need to have some kind of memory of who did what to you in the past. Animals reciprocate the giving of food or other resources. So there’s intelligence. You also have to have a feeling for another animal. Animals are going to dole out positive behaviors to animals with whom they can empathize. That ultimately allows animals to make choices as to what would be the most morally correct behavior with which to respond. So, for example, there’s a great story of a female elephant who saw a rambunctious teenage male elephant knock over a teenage female who had a bad leg. So the old female came in, chased the rambunctious teenage male away, and then touched her trunk to the wound on the young female’s leg. There’s intelligence, feeling, emotion, ultimately cashing out into the right thing to do. I would say that’s the right thing to do, chase the male away who caused the harm and take care of the injured elephant. When I was in Kenya with Professor Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I also saw elephants stop and wait for an injured elephant and feed her. She couldn’t do anything for the rest of the elephants in the herd, but this didn’t matter. They took care of her. So these would be the right things to do and morality has this sense of doing the right thing, the proper thing, doing something that doesn’t harm another being. I think that’s how they’re related. It’s something I call wild justice. I have a book that was published in April 2009 called “Wild Justice: the Moral Lives of Animals,” that I wrote with my friend who’s a philosopher, Jessica Pierce. We ponder those questions and note that saying that animals have a moral intelligence and moral sensibility is making a pretty big claim about their cognitive and emotional capacities. So they build on one another. I think that’s the best way to summarize relationships among intelligence, emotions and moral behavior.
Ferruggia: This morality in animals – what does that mean in terms of how we should treat them?
Bekoff: Once again, if animals are moral beings, it means we have to treat them with respect. It means that we’re attributing intelligence and emotions to them. It means that they know what’s happening to them, and they have feelings like we do, where they either like things or don’t like things. If you say that animals are also moral beings it just kind of raises the ante and makes it even more reprehensible that we would mistreat them. It means it’s just unforgivable to mistreat these animals.
Ferruggia: You and Jane Goodall do a lot of work together. When did you meet Jane Goodall?
Bekoff: I first met Jane years ago but we reconnected in April of 1999 in Boulder. We have common friends here. We came to realize we had a lot of overlap so we wrote some articles and then we wrote a book called “The Ten Trusts.”
Ferruggia: Why is that book important?
Bekoff: The book’s important because in a very clear way it lays out the ten reasons why we should treat animals – and the planet – with more respect and more compassion. We have two voices, Jane’s and mine. Her response to certain stories or questions is in regular type print and mine is in italics. It’s a very powerful way of getting people to get out and do something to make the world a better place for animals. If you’re working for animals in many ways you’re also working for the environment, for maintaining what biologists call “critical habitat” that animals need to survive and thrive. The two go hand in hand. And our book was really well received because it was very clear. It wasn’t in-your-face type of writing. But it was showing, once again, not telling, how people could go out and make a difference in the world. Very easy things – shutting light bulbs, go volunteer at the humane society shelter, shoveling snow for your invalid neighbor, take stray animals to the humane society, asking markets to stop selling veal. So the book was almost like a cookbook in a sense, and I think that’s why it was so important and well received.
Ferruggia: Let’s talk about children a little bit. Children seem to have an innate sense of empathy and compassion for animals and all living things. Why is this?
Bekoff: I like to say children are curious naturalists and their interest in the world hasn’t been tainted or stunted by education and by being “adults.” They have wide-ranging curiosity. They want to learn about things. And even very poor children. I’ve been with children in Kenya and Tanzania, and despite the fact socioeconomically they’re so, so poor, they’re always curious asking about plants and nature. I think it’s biophilia, what Edward O. Wilson, a famous biologist, calls it. It’s an innate attraction to the natural world. It’s just who we are because it’s deeply hardwired into who we are from our ancestors who lived much closer to nature.
Ferruggia: What does education do that changes this in children?
Bekoff: I’m not anti-education. After all, I’m a professor. But I think formal education can just stunt creativity and that biophilia. I know formal education is needed to learn math but I don’t think that we only need formal education to maintain the deep connections of children with animals. I don’t like to say it’s education per se, but I think you go to school and you learn certain things, and it pulls you – just being in the classroom – pulls you out of nature. That’s why there are schools that have a lot more outdoor time. But I think that kids just get pulled away fro nature because of all the demands on their life, not necessarily something wrong with the education process in and of itself. I know when I go see students and I do student events they’re always asking, “Can we go outside? Can we go watch animals?” or they want to watch animal videos. I think it’s just back biophilia – it’s who we are and we need to honor these hard-wired feelings and continue to nurture our attraction to animals.
Ferruggia: How would you see that as needing to change so the children don’t lose that innate sense?
Bekoff: We need to provide outdoor time for kids in school because that’s where they spend the majority of their waking day. I’m hardly in the market to tell people how to parent, but it seems to me the healthiest kids are the kids who go to school, because there’s so much to learn, and in school they have good teachers who teach them about animals and nature in general, and then they spend as much time as they can outside. They go hiking on weekends, take walks, just get outside and experience and feel the natural world. Because what they experience and feel as youngsters is going to have a lot of momentum and influence as they get older.
Ferruggia: You mentioned also that becoming an “adult” has an effect on this, that somehow it takes away from that innate sense. Can you describe that for me?
Bekoff: Growing up tends to take away the innate spontaneity of being overjoyed at just looking at a flower or watching a butterfly or watching dogs play. People say, “Well, adults don’t do that.” They don’t let go and express deep exuberance, see nature at work or at play. They don’t but they should. They should try to figure out what it’s like to be a dog or what it’s like to be a butterfly or what an elephant feels and go out and watch these animals. I think it’s the busyness of the world that takes away that spontaneity. We need to maintain that curiosity and that drive to learn about animals and to connect with the natural world. A lot of people get really sarcastic about it. They say schools just ruin kids. They don’t ruin kids. You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to learn something, but I think education can take a different course and I would definitely favor more time outside, more time in the natural world for kids. And also stress that it’s okay to be sentimental and to express feelings for animals and other parts of nature.
Ferruggia: You said people should try to understand what it’s like to be an animal. How does that help? Why is that important, to be able to do that?
Bekoff: I think it’s important to ask the question of what is it like to be a dog or a butterfly and then sit down and talk about it. When I do kids events I’ll ask kids, “Who lives with a cat? Who lives with a dog? Who lives with a parakeet or a gerbil or a hamster,” and I’ll say what do you think it’s like to be that animal? Animals make us think about the senses the animals have and all those animals have very keen senses of smell and hearing. So they hear and smell things we don’t. So, what does that mean in terms of how their world is different from ours? We get into these great discussions, about dogs not liking chairs to be dragged across the floor because the high pitched sound can be irritating to them. Or they’re very sensitive to odors so when you spill just a drop of soup it’s like Niagara Falls to a dog. So it’s just getting children as well as adults to think about what is it like to be a dog or a cat and what senses are important to them and how they differ from one another and from us. What does it mean if you can fly from point A to B in ten seconds, where if you have to walk or run from A to B? What does that mean about the world of a bird when compared to the world of a dog? You just put it out there, you have discussions, and it’s all part of the educational process. There’s lots of teachers doing it, lots of teachers who read sections of my books to really young kids, to talk about animal emotions and animal sentience. I’m amazed at the emails I get now from grade schoolers and middle schoolers and high schoolers – some of whom have read some of my scientific papers! It’s amazing – it blows my mind.
Ferruggia: That’s incredible.
Bekoff: Yes. That’s why there’s hope.
Ferruggia: You didn’t learn to see animals as objects or commodities. What did your parents do differently that allowed you to keep your natural self?
Bekoff: I didn’t grow up with animals. I had a goldfish like everybody in my generation had their token goldfish. But my mother was very compassionate and empathic. Although she had been bitten by a dog, she didn’t hate dogs, and she never tried to get us to hate animals. In fact, she always said we should treat animals, including humans, with respect. I think it was simply early imprinting and an early environment. My dad did like animals and my grandparents had a dog named Teddy and a cat named Tootsie. My father was also one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met and his optimism has rubbed off on me. I tend to see the bright side of just about everything even when things seem dim. I haven’t thought about them in a long time, but my grandparents, who were Russian immigrants, loved their animals and were always talking to them. So it just rubs off. It’s like osmosis. But I do think it was that general feeling of compassion and empathy with which I was raised that made me who I try to be – that you treat other living beings with respect. You just do. We didn’t sit down and ponder it. That’s just how you did it. So I grew up thinking that’s it’s natural to treat animals and humans with respect and dignity.
Ferruggia: You had that innate sense and then they reinforced it so there was nothing incongruous happening.
Bekoff: Yes, right. That’s a good way to put it. My parents reinforced the biophilia drive in me and didn’t try to say that now that you’re in school you can’t do this. We spent so much time outside too, although I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. We’d go off to the country. My dad used to work on a farm when he was in high school even though he lived in Brooklyn. So it was just this idea – go out and camp and hike and just be outside and appreciate what you have. Don’t ever take it for granted. I think that general feelings of compassion and empathy really catalyzes the biophilia.
Ferruggia: Let’s talk about the economy a little bit. Economic poverty is a reality in the world and especially in Third World countries. How does it affect the relationships we have with animals, such as the conflict between the Masai and elephants in Kenya?
Bekoff: I think, because I travel a lot, you’ve got to be culturally sensitive. There’s things that happen in America I don’t like and there’s things that happen in India and East Africa and China I don’t like. But you need to take into account the culture with which you’re concerned. One of the things I learned when I was in Kenya and I also have read about it, is you can hire people and pay them to kill elephants or to protect them – whatever it takes to make money. That’s why I’ve learned that you can’t always say it’s always bad people who do bad things to animals. They need the money and I think we need to be very sensitive to that. You can say to somebody, here’s ten dollars to kill elephants, or here’s ten dollars to protect them. Some of the people I’ve talked to would much rather make the money by protecting them. But if they don’t have the choice they need to have the money to feed themselves and their families. The economy affects the relationships in that you can get people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do when they’re terribly poor. They need to take care of themselves, their families and their friends. Consider, for example, the conflict between the Masai or other indigenous people and elephants. There’s conflict because elephants kill cows. And if you own only one cow and a goat you’ve lost fifty percent of your possessions. It’s impossible for people to understand this scenario but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen a man and his family own two goats and live in a hut the size of a phone booth. If they lose a goat they’ve lost one-half of their inventory and their resources. It’s fully understandable to me why they’re upset. But that’s why we have really good people working to come to an agreement with the Masai that they will compensate them, or better yet, try to protect the goats or the cows, for example, so that they won’t be killed. It’s something that I wish that people who are so sort of narrowly or myopically critical would travel and go see first-hand. These are really nice people. It’s just like somebody coming into your house and taking half of your food away. You wouldn’t want them to do it but we have enough that we could give up quite a bit and still have enough. So that’s how the economy really works in a lot of the Third World countries. It’s hard to find jobs. Give them a job, you pay them for what it is they have to do. But it can be easy to switch them over from killing to protecting elephants because they don’t hate the elephants. They just need to make money, which is entirely understandable.
Ferruggia: How has the recognition that sometimes the economic survival of a group of people inevitably results in the suffering and death of animals influenced your beliefs?
Bekoff: My traveling has greatly influenced me in having cultural sensitivity and being more of a pluralist. I wish the whole world were vegan and it’s not going to be, I wish the Masai and other peoples wouldn’t kill elephants or other animals but I understand why they do. So I need to explain to them why I would like them to stop or at least curtail their activities. I wish the Chinese wouldn’t farm moon bears. I wish they wouldn’t torture dogs and eat them – or cats, cows, chickens and pigs. I think the economy drives much of what people do because I truly believe most people are born to be good and born to be kind but when you’re in the hole economically it can have major effects on behavior. We already know that just from looking at our own country. It’s made me more aware of the fact that I’m a white guy living in Boulder and I can’t tell people of color in Africa what to do. I can explain to them why it would be a nicer and better world if they did certain things but I need to understand that in and of themselves they’re not going to do it on their own. Life’s too stressful. They’re living hand to mouth and minute to minute. That’s basically how just experiencing these things firsthand has had a huge influence on my belief and also on the way I approach people who are harming animals in Third World and other very poor countries.
Ferruggia: How do you do that?
Bekoff: I approach them with compassion and understanding and provide examples. I talk with them not only about what the animals are feeling but wouldn’t the world be a better place if they and their children treated the animals in other more compassionate ways. Then I can explain to them that animals have feelings. A lot of them don’t believe it. Or they haven’t even thought about it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not having thought about it.
Ferruggia: They’re so busy trying to survive.
Bekoff: Exactly. I think that you show by example. You talk with them. And the reception is usually very positive. Once again, kids are curious naturalists, but this is so even among adults. It’s important to talk to them and not put it in their face or insult or demean them. It doesn’t help to yell at a Masai that you’re being cruel and insensitive because you want to kill this elephant. It doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is for you to say there are other ways to resolve the conflict, let’s leave the elephants be and I will pay you back or you will be reimbursed if you lose a cow. We all don’t want the cow to be lost but you will be reimbursed monetarily, not with Food Stamps. Cynthia Moss, who has been studying elephants in Amboseli for nearly forty years, once had to have having meetings with the local Masai council and some elders because of a conflict between an elephant and a goat. This happened when I was staying in Cynthia’s elephant camp. She takes these meetings very seriously and they met for hours and hours. They ultimately resolved the conflict. You have to be sensitive that you’re not just going to drop them an email and solve it. You might have to sit around and talk about the weather and their families for three or four hours before they even get to the topic at hand. That’s being culturally sensitive. In my own work with the rescued moon bears in China, I just can’t believe what the bear farmers do but it doesn’t get me anywhere to yell at them. So when I met some and talked at a meeting back in 2004, I gave them copies of my children’s book on animals (Strolling With Our Kin, revised and updated as Animals Matter) that had been published in Chinese. I heard from at least one of them that it really made a difference in how he looked at the bears. I don’t know if that meant he stopped doing what he did, but he shared it with his kids and so the only hope you can have is that it will have an influence via his children. So, who knows? You put it out there and you just hope something good comes from it. Activism takes a lot of time and energy and can be very frustrating. If you’re looking for immediate gratification, you’d better find another job.
Ferruggia: Have you been threatened with your life for trying to help the animals?
Bekoff: No. When I tried to get the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) to stop the lynx reintroduction in Colorado I went to a meeting where I was one of the only people there who opposed it, and there were some wildlife people there. It was interesting. We had a talk, I gave a talk, we had a discussion, and then over lunch one of the guys said to me, “You know, I came here really wanting to beat you up but I like you.” I really took that to heart and the reason I took it to heart was that while we disagreed we were nice to each other. Yelling would have gotten us nowhere. He and I shared very little in common other than that we were two male human beings. But we had a good talk. We left probably disagreeing with one another but at least we could talk to one another. There was no reason not to be nice to him. That’s the closest I came where somebody said they really wanted to beat me up.
Ferruggia: Why do we need the animals, maybe now more than ever?
Bekoff: I think we need animals now more than ever for a lot of reasons. We know that when we pet a dog, our heart rate and our blood pressure goes down. And so does the dog’s. We basically evolved with dogs. Animals remind us of who we are. They make us feel at ease. I think in these stressful times especially now with the terrible economy we need animals more than ever but we need them because we evolved with animals. They’re part of our world and we’re part of theirs. The more we look at the physiological responses we have to the presence of animals the more we learn about how closely connected we are to one another. Animals have a very strong effect on oxytocin levels, a chemical level that’s important in mother-infant bonding. It’s also important in the formation of other types of social bonds. I think it gets back to biophilia and the innate drive to connect with nature. They are part of who we are and that’s why we need them. In times of stress, we need them even more, not less, which is why people spend a lot more time sometimes with their dogs when they are stressed out about something.
Ferruggia: How can people whose economic survival is dependent on using animals as commodities move toward relating to them as fellow creatures on this planet?
Bekoff: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think that people who depend on using animals, say in circuses or rodeos, for example, do what they do because they don’t believe that they’re using the animals as commodities. Since zoos and rodeos are going to exist, and circuses as well, I try to work with them to increase the humaneness of the situations in which the animals are kept, always putting out to them that some day, let’s hope that we don’t have to have these venues at all. Many people who work for zoos would love to see zoos be closed. When people say, “So and so works at a zoo, how can you be friends with them?” I mention that there are many good people that work at zoos, and the animals are better off because they’re there. They care about the animals. I could work at a zoo if I had to because I could take care of the animals better than they are probably being taken care of. I think it’s very important to show people that there’s other more humane ways to treat the animals even if they say, “It’s my job,” – and no one wants to lose their job today. If you look at animals as being sentient, if you look at them as subjects of a life, not objects or property or non-sentient objects then they’re going to be treated better. That’s happening in a lot of places with really good enrichment programs. I’m not a fan of zoos, but there are zoos that are making an effort to give animals better lives. Are they as good as I’d like to see them? No. While we’re working to get rid of zoos or rodeos or slaughterhouses, we have to keep working to give better lives to the animals who are unfortunate enough to be there. So that’s how I do it. Put it out there – show them the science, show them the stories, and show them how they can still make a living but treat their animals with more compassion, respect and dignity.
Ferruggia: What changes are you seeing in your world travels?
Bekoff: Lots. More compassion. More empathy. More activism and concern for what’s happening with animals. There’s also more connection between humans and animals. But things change slowly. People who think attitudes toward animals are going to change overnight need to be more patient – like I said, if you’re into animal protection and activism for immediate rewards, you’d better find something else to do. But no matter where I go, the audiences are very receptive and I’m not only preaching to the converted. My animal’s emotions book is out in six or seven languages and it’s going to be translated into a dozen or more and most of the European languages. So that’s how you do it – you put it out there and you take the time to explain to people how they can make the world a more compassionate place, and often they do. And once again, go to the kids. Kids are really important.
Ferruggia: Now let’s talk about science a little bit. You’ve often said that perhaps science needs to change and that scientific “objectivity” may be self-limiting. What are the potential pitfalls of “objective” science, and can science ever be truly “objective”?
Bekoff: One of the things I’ve always thought is that science is a business like lots of other enterprises, so it cannot be totally objective. Scientists are human beings. They come to the table with a certain worldview. That’s why people disagree about the nature of light or the common cold. So it’s not only animal behavior or animal’s emotions and sentience on which people disagree. The pitfall of objective science is it allows people to look at animals as objects, not subjects, and treat them inhumanely. That’s why animals are still numbered in laboratories – but times are changing. So in the past you may have read about rat number 35 or chimpanzee 48 or wolf 37, rather than Joe, Mary, Harry, Karen or Jody. By looking at them objectively robs them of who they are. So it’s fine balance because you also don’t want to be so subjective that you’re reading into their behavior. I’ve studied certain animals for decades and I’ve come to know very well. I’ve learned a lot by trying to empathize with them and not looking at them as numbered objects. People worry that what they call subjective science won’t be as reliable. So I do cross reliability checks with my observers. We agree most to the time on what the data mean and other researchers have also discovered the same thing. If there’s five of us watching an animal we’ll agree about who’s dominant, who likes to play, who has a certain personality. That agreement is very, very important. Empathizing with animals doesn’t make for less reliable science.
Ferruggia: What other kinds of knowledge need to be taken into account when we deal with animals?
Bekoff: We definitely want to take into account science. We also want to take into account common sense and indigenous knowledge. When we want to learn about animals we need to take into account all sources of information. For a book I just completed called “The Animal’s Manifesto,” that will be published in spring 2010, I kept track of how new scientific data agreed or didn’t agree with common sense or all the stories I get. It almost always agrees. Science, if nothing else, is showing us how amazing animals are even beyond our belief. If I get 30 stories about funeral services in birds and then somebody looks at a bird’s brain and says, “Wow, in their emotional part of the brain they have a certain chemical like we do that underlies grief,” we see that there is a scientific basis for our beliefs about grief in animals. You’d expect to see some expression of grief. The neat thing is that we’re learning about the amazing emotional capacities of animals from solid science. We’re learning that they’re generous, we’re learning they’re compassionate, we’re learning that they’re empathic, we’re learning that they show reciprocity, which is getting back to why Jessica and I wrote the book called “Wild Justice.” We’re learning that they know right from wrong and can make what we call moral judgments. There’s many different sources of knowledge that are informing us about the behavior of a wide array of species.
Ferruggia: You mentioned indigenous knowledge. Why is indigenous knowledge important?
Bekoff: Indigenous knowledge is important because indigenous peoples tend to live among animals. I just love listening to stories that Kenyans or Tanzanians will tell me about elephants or lions. When I studied coyotes up in Jackson Hole for years, I used to have ranchers tell me, “They’re paying you to learn this? We know all about them.” You know, most of the time they were really good observers, no matter what they thought of the animals. They were great observers of the social lives of the coyotes who came to visit. We just need to take it all in. A rancher told me he was convinced the coyotes could count. So over the course of years we looked at the way mothers moved their babies. In fact, it seemed like they did have an estimate of how many babies there were. They seemed to keep track when they moved infants from den to den, never left a baby behind, and never went back to check whether another individual was there. I’m not saying that coyotes count like one, two, three, four, five, six. But this rancher was right. He said, why don’t you check this out? It was great. It gave us something to do in the long, cold springs when baby coyotes were being born.
Ferruggia: Why is it in this society we are so willing to delegate so much authority to science over what our own senses tell us?
Bekoff: Science has this way of being extremely arrogant and authoritarian. We call it scienticism when science rules. I think part of it is because people have been trained that way. Part of it is science does cool things. If you think they’re cool. It gets us to Mars, it gets us to the moon, it does cure certain diseases. We learn about the world. I’m interested in artificial intelligence. I’m also interested in extraterrestrial intelligence. So we’re learning about that. Science helps us along.
Ferruggia: Is it something that people are attracted to when scientists do behave in an authoritarian way?
Bekoff: I think people are more attracted to scientists who have a human side, not only humane, but human side, and can say, “I messed up.” I messed up. I once did a study and I did the statistics and I started writing the paper, and somebody said, “You’re wrong.” And I went, “Oh, okay.” And I was wrong. It’s just being human. We all make errors but we all do good things. I think people are much more receptive to scientists who are accessible and are willing to say, “I’m a scientist and I love doing science, but I’m also a human being who can make errors.” The woman with whom I studied neuroscience as an undergraduate, Nobel laureate Professor Dr. Rita Lev-Montalcini, wrote about our imperfections, not to demean or degrade us, but rather to stress that being imperfect is part of being human and it is part of the business of science. We need to learn from our mistakes and move on.
Ferruggia: Please tell me about Luna, the baby whale, and how science may have contributed to our failure to save him.
Bekoff: Luna was a baby whale who somehow got lost, stranded from his group, and lived off an island in British Columbia for years, and was, if you will, doglike – he liked to be petted, sought people out, liked to have his tongue rubbed and his head petted. The video, “Saving Luna,” is excellent because it shows how science and common sense and indigenous knowledge all played a role in trying to understand what Luna wanted and how to treat him. All contributed to how people viewed Luna. Science may have contributed to the failure to save him, from the point of view that the scientists who were interviewed were extremely objective and didn’t believe certain things about why Luna was seeking out contact. Killer whales are social, and when he couldn’t have contact with killer whales he wanted to be with people. It was a very unique situation. But I think it was looking at Luna, not so much as an object, but saying that we don’t really know what he needs so we should just leave him alone. But Luna was telling us behaviorally what he needed. He was seeking people out and chasing down boats and chasing down people. I think it was the scientific objectification that may have influenced the way people responded to Luna.
Ferruggia: He didn’t get what he needed because we didn’t understand the messages he was giving us?
Bekoff: It’s more complex than that. In some ways Luna got what he needed by people breaking the law. A woman who was going to be fined $100,000 and ten years in jail wound up having to pay a hundred bucks (for petting him). So he got what he needed. It was more the attempt by some of the scientists to remain objective. But there were also scientists who weren’t. They said, “Look, Luna’s telling us what he needs. It’s like if a dog comes over and leans into you they’re telling you what they need. Why not Luna?” Why not a cat? Why not a bird? So I think it’s the objectification that really influenced the way people interacted with Luna. As it turned out, Luna did die but it was an accident. I think people are mixed but I’m not sure Luna would have had a longer life anywhere else too, absent his natal group.
Ferruggia: Please tell me about why science failed in the lynx reintroduction program in Colorado.
Bekoff: I don’t think the science necessarily failed. The science showed that the habitat into which the lynx were going to be introduced was marginal, and there was a reason why the lynx weren’t there. Number one, it was marginal habitat because snowshoe hares, the favorite food of lynx, were in very short supply. Number two, lynx weren’t there because they had been killed off by humans. I think there were early failures because the Colorado Division of Wildlife ignored the scientific findings. They used this “dump and prey” kind of strategy. Dump them out there, and if fifty percent die that’s okay, if fifty percent live maybe they’ll go on to breed. Those of us who opposed the reckless ways of the CDOW organized to protest what they were doing because we were very upset, not only with the suffering of the lynx – four out of five animals starved to death, which isn’t a pleasant death – but their ignorance of scientific facts. The CDOW went on to use a soft release, where they habituated the animals to captivity and to certain situations before they released them, rather than trap them, throw them in a cage, fly them to Colorado and dump them out. The animals were stressed, some were injured, and so the likelihood of survival was very low. So I actually think that if people would have paid attention to the science more it would have been a more successful project from the get go.
Ferruggia: What I remember from this is that there was a scientist, I think he was associated with CDOW, and he told them there were not enough snowshoe hares out there to feed them and that was apparently the only thing that they ate.
Ferruggia: Then, in response to that, the CDOW fired that scientist.
Bekoff: Yes. There were a lot of things, some to which I was privy and others not. But yes. There was a scientist, and I don’t know if he was fired or put on to another project. Sometimes it’s hard to fire them. But he was removed from the lynx project because he questioned what was being done. That was clear. But the science actually supported him.
Ferruggia: Why did the CDOW choose to ignore him and go on to do something that they had reason to believe was not going to work?
Bekoff: Because it was the swan song, if you will, for a man who was retiring. And he wanted to get lynx on the ground as soon as he could. That’s a quote from him. Really, it was a rushed project and I think a lot of them came to realize it was a rushed project and that’s why they changed their release protocol and began listening to their critics. That’s why they started talking to me actually.
Ferruggia: And you were willing to risk your job to save the lynx.
Bekoff: Yes. When the CDOW came after me in the person of this one guy, administrators and colleagues at the University of Colorado supported me. So it wasn’t really risking my job per se. In a sense I suppose I could have been risking my scientific reputation but I wasn’t because I knew the science was good and that the CDOW was careless. I never felt like I was risking my job and when this guy from the CDOW asked the University to censure me, the University told him no, because of freedom of speech, and academic freedom.
Ferruggia: What is it that you said that got them so upset?
Bekoff: What I said is that the animals are going to continue to die, which they did, and that they were ignoring the good science, which they did, and that the program should go on hold, which they didn’t want to do because they wanted to get the lynx on the ground because they had them, and they wanted to get the lynx out there before this guy retired. It was just very poorly planned and it was rushed and I don’t think anybody would disagree with that today, even people working in the program. I really don’t. I think they were just so eager to get it going they just ignored a lot of things that were wrong with the protocol.
Ferruggia: You held a candlelight vigil for the lynx on Pearl Street Mall in Boulder.
Ferruggia: Why did you do that?
Bekoff: It was just to call attention to the fact that these animals were dying. I think all of ten people showed on a very snowy evening in February. But the next time we did a demonstration there were a hundred people, and the next time there were more, including children and seniors. The protests coalesced people. Most people didn’t even know lynx were being reintroduced until they read it in the paper the day the lynx were reintroduced. They didn’t know about the public meetings. But they were a sham because we went and we talked and then we were told we didn’t know anything. Someone who didn’t know my long background in carnivore behavior and behavioral ecology told me to go find a biologist! I did – me!
Ferruggia: Who told you that you didn’t know anything?
Bekoff: The CDOW. So the candlelight vigil was a perfect way of calling attention to the plight of the lynx. People would drive by and say, what are you protesting? The demonstrations got good coverage. In fact, some of the demonstrations got coverage in USA Today and New York Times as well as in prestigious scientific journals such as Science. And it began to make people aware of what was happening. Even people who didn’t give a hoot about lynx didn’t like the idea that their money was being put into a project where animals were dying left and right. The survival rate was terrible at the beginning.
Ferruggia: What was the survival rate?
Bekoff: The current survival rate, if I’m not mistaken, is around 45 percent. Early on it was lower.
Ferruggia: What happened at the beginning of the reintroduction?
Bekoff: Four to the first five animals who were released starved to death immediately and overall survival was well below fifty percent in the beginning. Some animals were injured and couldn’t get food, some starved, some got hit by cars. Some wandered off into even more marginal habitat. I used to say if I had the same chance of leaving my house and getting to my job, I wouldn’t leave my house.
Ferruggia: We tend to treat our pets as our children, but we don’t necessarily extend the same kind of caring to wildlife or animals in bondage. People who hunt for sport may say animals have no feelings but when their dog dies, they cry. We kill houseflies without a second thought. We don’t launch media campaigns to protect rattlesnakes. How does what we receive from an animal impact our ability or willingness to show empathy and compassion?
Bekoff: Most humans are what we call speciesists, and that means they tend to ascribe certain characteristics to a species and then treat all members of the species in the same way. People don’t think houseflies are smart or emotional so they kill them. People think dogs are smart and emotional so they don’t kill them. That’s really cutting through the chase but I think if you asked people the rules of thumb they use in interacting with animals, those are the rules that many people use. People also have this notion of kinship and friendship so people will go into a laboratory and torture dogs and come home and love their dog. People will go hunt deer and come home and love their dog. And then when you say do you think the dog has feelings – yes. Do you think the deer has feelings? Yes. Why do you kill the deer? It shows that people have this moral schizophrenia, if you will, about what they’re doing. One of the things we’re doing these days is trying to show people that across mammals, let’s just focus on mammals for now, they all share the same neural structures and the same neurochemicals underlying emotions. So if you think dogs have emotions, so do cats, so do deer, elk and moose that you kill. And chickens, rats and mice. Basically what we’re trying to do is point out in nice ways that people are morally split. If they were split that way in other parts of their life they probably wouldn’t be able to live. But they’re morally split with respect to how they interact with animals. So you try to get people to talk about why they do what they do when they hunt deer but wouldn’t hunt their dog. It’s the same question I raise, especially when I come back from China. Why are people more upset when they think about people eating dogs than cows? It would actually be better to eat excess dogs and get rid of factory farms. It would be morally better and it would be environmentally better. People don’t like to talk about that and it’s because of the incredibly close relationship they have with dogs. What I try to do with my colleagues is to get rid of the barrier, and get people to talk about what they’re feeling and what they’re doing. I don’t eat cows but if someone said eat this cow or eat your dog I might choose to eat the cow. But at least I’d had to have a reason. He’s my friend and he trusts me to do what’s right for him. Slowly people are realizing that they need to be more consistent in their behavior. They need to understand they might be better off to eating dogs or cats rather than cows. Once again it’s raising the questions and having the discussion. That’s what it really comes down to. Putting it out there, talking – you may disagree but at least you got the information.
Ferruggia: What about how we perceive animals in terms of how vulnerable they are? How does that impact our ability to care about their welfare?
Bekoff: A lot of people work with animals because they see them as these non-consenting beings who are extremely vulnerable. My mother was very sick and was non-consenting and was very vulnerable. We took care of her for years, making all sorts of decisions for her. An increasing number of people are very concerned about the vulnerability of animals because of human domination and our omnipresence on the planet. We must focus on protecting animals. Vulnerability is huge. You don’t see prairie dogs building malls and getting rid of humans.
Ferruggia: If an animal isn’t perceived as vulnerable, is that animal less likely, such as a rattlesnake, to be taken care of?
Bekoff: I think there’s two factors. It’s vulnerability and attractivity. Many people don’t think hyenas are particularly attractive but they’re incredibly smart and social. So if I told you about a study done on hyenas but I substituted “dog” or “wolf,” you’d love them. But the minute I told you it’s a hyena, you might go, “Oh, they’re disgusting.” Animals get a bad rap because of who they’re perceived to. So I think vulnerability is but one factor. Since rattlesnakes have toxins and can kill you some people don’t think they’re vulnerable. But they are vulnerable because we can kill thousands of them by just dumping dirt in their hole or building a shopping center or building homes. People look at predators in much the same way. They don’t see them as vulnerable but of course they’re vulnerable. They just don’t see them in that light.
Ferruggia: If you see a spider at your foot, someone’s much more likely to step on that spider. But if you see a butterfly at your foot, you’re not likely to step on it.
Bekoff: Right. There’s this innate attractiveness to a colored butterfly versus a spider. Both may or may not be sentient for all we know. But we would tend to treat the pretty butterfly better than the ugly spider. Which is the same as treating a friendly gopher better than a poisonous rattlesnake. It’s an interesting phenomenon that needs to be studied further.
Ferruggia: You’ve said that empathy is a form of spirituality. Please tell me more about that.
Bekoff: I t think of empathy as fostering a sense of oneness and unity. That’s why I see it as a spiritual idea. It’s hard for me to put some of my ideas into words. But empathy and spirituality come down to this sense of oneness, this sort of seamless unity among beings. That’s a very spiritual feeling – the world as a unified whole with all beings being all part of that whole.
Ferruggia: You care so deeply for animals. Sometimes it must be very hard to see how much some of them are suffering. How are you able to do this work?
Bekoff: I do the work because I see the little blips of progress. They go a long way. So when I work with the rescued bears at Animal Asia’s Moon bear Rescue Centre outside of Chengdu, China, it’s easy to see that they’re suffering physically and mentally. We know they’re in dire straits, but if we don’t give them all we can, they will continue to suffer physically and mentally. I feel we should do all we can to take them out of their pain and let them live the best life they can. The way I keep my hope and dreams alive is to focus on the little things that go a long way.
Ferruggia: How does anger at seeing animals suffer influence action?
Bekoff: I think anger motivates people, but in effect, it has a negative result. I just don’t think that yelling and screaming at someone who abuses animals is going to get them to change their ways. It usually doesn’t. I don’t like when somebody yells and screams at me about some mistake I made and I do make errors, like everybody else. I’d rather have somebody say, “Why did you do this?” or, “Do you know why you did this?” or “Maybe you could ponder your behavior.” I think the energy that’s put into anger takes away from the compassionate activism that I think is much more effective. I think that we should be proactively and compassionately activists. We certainly should try to put out the fires. But more importantly, we should be nice to people and try to understand their point of view and then use that, if you will, against the people who are abusing the animals. I used to have students in my class write a paper arguing the opposite point of view that they held. So if they were pro-hunting they had to write an anti-hunting essay and vice-versa. At first they didn’t like it but then they came to love it because a good debater knows the kind of counter-arguments that are going to come to him or her.
Ferruggia: Definitely. You talk about living in harmony but you’re also a self-proclaimed animal rights activist. What is the relationship between activism and living in harmony with other living beings?
Bekoff: I like to think of myself as an animal protection activist, and that means I try to become the animals with whom I live or with whom I work. And that’s a very spiritual feeling in the sense of feeling a oneness and deep unity with other beings. That’s the only way I can do it because if I start thinking about some distance between myself and an individual animal or a group of animals, then it kind of takes away the fuel and the motivation and the inspiration to work with them. My general view is animals need us, they’re vulnerable, and they can’t speak for themselves. I know they vocalize but it’s hard for them to speak out on their own behalf.
Ferruggia: They need someone to listen.
Bekoff: They need someone to listen. I think that as a self-proclaimed animal protection activist, to me the relationship between activism and living in harmony with other living beings is a given. The two go hand in hand. They’re not separable.
Ferruggia: You said sometimes you think animals should have rights and sometimes you think it doesn’t matter. Can you explain that a little more?
Bekoff: Yes. I mean if animals had rights it would surely make a difference in how they’re treated. It’s just such a slow process and I’m not patient enough. I’d like to believe that animals will get the treatment they deserve, not because of some legal rights or legalese, but because people will compassionately feel and treat them in a certain way. I mean, people have rights but people still get murdered and get robbed and get screwed over by the government, for example, but we have rights not to be treated in certain ways. So I don’t think rights, in and of themselves, is going to confer the protection we want animals to have. It’ll help. While we’re working for rights I think we need to keep in mind our focus is to increase the well being of animals. The other thing I want to make clear is it’s not what animals know but what they feel that should be the major reason why we grant them protection and work for them. But the real reason is that they exist. I’m glad that there are people working for animal rights. My mission is to keep protecting animals and try to get people to change the ways they interact in the world and the belief systems which they have, which is why I travel and go to different countries and try to get people to see there’s different ways to interact with animals.
Ferruggia: Why do people tend to perceive animal rights activists as people-haters?
Bekoff: Yes, there’s a general feeling that if you care about animals you don’t care about people. But that’s a very false impression and generalization. Most people who work for animals work for or care deeply about people. A lot of people who work for people don’t work for animals. It’s actually very asymmetric.
Ferruggia: You had an opportunity to participate in a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Could you tell me about that meeting?
Bekoff: Yes. It was a meeting held in 2002 in Graz, Austria, and it was part of the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra for World Peace. What was wonderful was that animals were being brought into the fold. I went and gave a paper called, “Minding Animals, Minding Earth,” and talked about spirituality, unity and oneness. I’m boiling down a huge, huge topic, but that’s basically what it was. I remember being invited and thinking, “Oh, wow, this is going to be a really difficult thing,” and I wrote a 40-page paper in three days, because it was part of what I’d been thinking about for a very long time. It was waiting to go from my head to my fingers on my keyboard. But it was great because there were people there from all over the world. We had these wonderful discussions about unity, oneness and spirituality. And bringing animals into the discussion and showing how we think about animals and how we treat them really says a lot about how we think about ourselves and how we treat ourselves and other human beings. So it was great. It was just, as you would expect from the Dalai Lama, the whole atmosphere was one of compassion and benevolence and beneficence. It was wonderful.
Ferruggia: Did you speak with him personally? Did you ask him any questions?
Bekoff: No, I didn’t. But I know he’s read some of my writings because he wrote a blurb from my book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” and I’ve had email contacts with him via his secretary. So I know he knows about and likes what I do and that makes me feel good.
Ferruggia: I’ll bet. What valuable insights did he offer?
Bekoff: There are many, many insights but one that stands out centers on the idea that how we treat animals really is a measure of how we treat ourselves, and how we are part of the animal kingdom. One big idea is that compassion begets compassion, and that’s what I say that people who care about animals don’t care about humans. You’ve got this big umbrella of compassion and it readily spreads with the goodness of the people who do the work. So that’s the major message – we are born to be compassionate, we are born to be good, and that compassion begets compassion. I just can’t think of any better way to say that. We’re all part of the same planet and we all depend on one another even though we often don’t realize that we do.
Ferruggia: Why do animals matter to you?
Bekoff: Animals matter to me because they exist and we need to honor their being, the fact that they’re here. Animals matter to me because they are. It’s why we should value and treat life as sacred. On a more practical level, they matter to me because I enjoy studying them and learning about them and sharing that information with others. Animals are part of the world and they deserve to have their place in the world honored.
Ferruggia: How do you maintain hope?
Bekoff: I maintain hope in lots of ways. I do believe that people are born to be good and be compassionate and show beneficence. I think the competition paradigm has been way, way overplayed. It doesn’t mean people and animals can’t be competitive, but they also can be very good and very nice to one another. I also maintain hope because in my travels, even around Boulder and Colorado, I see people who are doing so many good things for animals, humans and the environment. And also because I put a lot of purchase into little things. Little incremental steps that show we’re making progress. Like I said before, if you’re looking for immediate rewards, pick another thing to do. I’ve had children become vegetarians and I’ve had senior citizens go out and take on projects to help animals. We had an 86-year-old woman come out to the Denver Zoo to protest the mistreatment of the elephants there. I got kids to protest the planned killing of prairie dogs at their school because the school wouldn’t listen to me, but they would listen to the kids. So it’s just little things. And, because I travel I see the enthusiasm globally. If I had to pick one segment of the population on which to focus it would be the kids. You have to show them what we know and you have to reward and reinforce them for being nice. You just do. There’s just no other way. Or else we’re just heading off into a world that isn’t going to look any prettier. I also maintain hope because I’m innately hopeful and optimistic and my father was the most optimistic person I ever met.
Ferruggia: That’s wonderful.
Bekoff: Thank you. I don’t know if it’s genetic but it’s probably a combination. I also don’t take “no” for an answer. When people say you really can’t do this, or you can’t protect these animals, or you can’t do something, I say, “Yes you can. And you can do it by being nice.” You can get a lot done by being nice. You really can. You don’t need to be in someone’s face. I always say that you can attack one’s position but not the person.
Ferruggia: Is there anything more you’d like to say before we wind this up?
Bekoff: I want to say again that I don’t think that people who do bad things to animals are bad people. I don’t think that some of the biologists who messed up the lynx project are bad people. I don’t think people who necessarily work in slaughterhouses or zoos are necessarily bad people. I want to be really clear about that because I don’t like people who characterize zoo workers or others who work in places where I might not want to work or you might not want to work as being bad people. That is related to economic conditions that result in people mistreating animals. Sometimes people just wind up in compromised positions and I’m glad that there are good people working in zoos. I’m glad we have people shaking the foundations of places in which animals are routinely abused. I also want to stress my belief that people are born to be compassionate and we must create situations that allow people to express their inborn goodness and beneficence. Finally, although time isn’t on our side, I want to thank all the wonderful people around the world who work for animals because they are individuals who will make the world a better and more compassionate place for all beings, nonhuman and human alike. I also know that I’m very fortunate to have been able to pursue and realize my dreams and I never take that for granted.
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